The American Drugstore by Jean Anderson

Let’s step back in time, say around 1885, and stop to shop at the W.W. Wickel Drugstore. Your prescription for amoxicillin? Some flashlight batteries? Perhaps a humorous greeting card or a box of Band-Aids. I don’t think so. How different the stock of today’s drugstore is from the store of that era.

The American drugstore can trace its roots to colonial times. Mrs. George Washington was a customer of a store in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where the leech jar was a common receptacle. Prior to the 1860s most, if not all, medical knowledge was nothing more than unsubstantiated antidotes. Many of these medications proved to be effective, but the majority were useless, or even harmful.

Thus the golden age of the American drugstore began with the introduction of scientific fact into pharmacy and medicine. It was around the 1860s when pharmacy began its journey from alchemy and conjecture to more modem scientific methods. The American pharmaceutical industry was still very young, and the majority of drugs offered came from Europe.

William Wallace Wickel purchased a small two year old pharmacy in little Naperville, Illinois, from Dr. Daniels and Dr. Morse in 1877. It was not necessary to have a pharmacy degree in that era, although I do know that he had done some sort academic study at Cornell University. All it took to become a pharmacist was an apprenticeship and the passing of an exam. By the time my grandfather took over the business in 1915, he had his degree in pharmacy from Northwestern University.

In 1877, a drug store was a hybrid business, combining the science of medicine with the merchandise carried by a general store. When customers entered Wickel’s they were met by the scent of oils and herbs.

The 19th century drug store was mixture of items that today would be found in hardware stores, decorating shops, and fabric items in addition to medicines. Wickel carried Bibles, other books, stationary, ink, wallpaper and paint, licorice sticks and penny candy, along with medicated plasters, patent medicines, homeopathic remedies, and compounded prescriptions. Many items for the local farmers needs were always stocked.

Large signs, colorful-labeled boxes, tins and cabinets were filled with medicines such as Humphries Specifics or Diamond Dyes. They were designed to encourage the customer to buy. The cabinets often had lithographed tin panel inserts on the front. Many of you will remember the lithographed panels on the Diamond Dye cabinets which had as many as eight different designs at one time or another. This company made 36 colors of fabric dye in Burlington, Vermont from 1881 to 1943! (Today some of those cabinets sell for thousands of dollars.)

A commonplace fixture of the old-time drug store were the show globes which were used much as the barber pole in the barber shop — to identify the place as a pharmacy. To the inside of these hanging or standing globes the pharmacist would add colored water by mixing chemicals to give the globe beauty. Every pharmacist had his own special coloration formula in which he took great pride, thus showing his chemical prowess. The ability to extract and mix was the sign of a competent druggist, and the show globe demonstrated his ability.

Mr. Wickel was quite up-to-date in promoting his business. Ten cent coupons were offered occasionally, and frequent ads appeared in the Naperville Clarion and the Northwestern (now North Central) College Chronicle.

Doctors prescribed what they thought their patients needed, and pharmacists made up whatever was called for. The pharmacy was equipped with mortar and pestles, balances, wooden tablet presses, glass beakers, funnels, pipettes and tubing, distilling apparatus, spatulas, and a marble ointment slab. Bottles of various shapes and sizes, many embossed with the drugstore name, as well as jars, boxes, and labels were stocked. The prescription file was a necessity.

Commonly prescribed medications were tinctures in which some organic material was the active ingredient extracted in alcohol. Solutions were substances dissolved or suspended in water, such as calamine lotion. Ointments were infused with the ingredients that the doctor ordered, the base usually being petroleum jelly that has been discovered ml 870 and patented as Vaseline in 1872. At times however, a dilute coal tar base was ordered, especially for more serious skin problems. W.W. Wickel compounded an ointment called Truitt’s Black Salve named for the local doctor who prescribed it. My grandfather and father were still compounding this medication in the 1940s and 50s!

Powders were made according to the physician’s recipe. The ingredients were ground together in the mortar and pestle, mixed thoroughly and folded into special powder papers or a small envelope. Some powders were compressed into pills, and after empty gelatin capsules became available, these also were filled with compounded powders.

Patent Medicines started the pharmaceutical industry in-the United States. These medicines were preparations that often carried various ingredients such as alcohol and claimed to cure many if not all diseases. Early drug manufacturers made formulations and marketed them under a variety of names. Sears had a large section in their catalog• devoted to the sale of patent medicines. One such remedy was “Soothing Baby Syrup” which claimed to stop your baby from crying. It was very effective, the only drawback was that the baby became an opium addict.

Very often patent medicines were called “cures” and actually claimed to cure diseases. Eventually the U.S.Government stepped in and forced the wording to be changed to “remedy”. This was to bring a level of honesty into the pharmaceutical industry. Most of the major drug companies today got their start with patent medicines. Doctors or pharmacist would set up their drug manufacturing operation without any interference. They could make any claim and engage in drug making without any credentials.

Eventually, the federal government began to restrict the manufacture of these drugs, and the pharmaceutical companies were required to prove their efficacy. It wasn’t until the I 960 that the safety as well as the efficacy was required for the product to remain on the market. There are countless patent medicines being sold today!

The discussion of patent medicines wouldn’t be complete without describing a few of them. Lydia Pinkham immediately comes to mind. She first began developing borne remedies when her husband was facing bankruptcy. Her Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was one of the best known patent medicines of the 19th century, and descendants of this product are still available today. Her skill was in marketing her product directly to women. Her face was on the label, and the testimonial of grateful women made good advertising copy.

Lydia’s Vegetable Compound varied between 15 and 20 percent alcohol, so the ladies could get a fairly good buzz from it. It was very popular with the WCTUers who didn’t have a clue. Another very popular remedy, especially with the young men,was Dr. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters. Hostetter’s Bitters were 44.3 percent alcohol —more potent than 80 proof whiskey!

Frederick Humphreys, M.D., established Doctor Humphrey’s Specific Homeopathic Medicine Company in Auburn, NY, about 1844. Homeopathy seeks to cure disease by giving the patient minute doses of drugs that produce the disease. The theory is the symptoms reveal nature’s effort to combat the disease. His business boomed. The medicines he made were numbered:#2-Worms, #3-Teething, Colic and Crying, #20-Whooping Cough, #30-Bedwetting, #34-Diptheria, etc.

He also added Witch Hazel products to his line; Marvel of Healing for internal use, and Witch Hazel Oil for external application. Witch Hazel has been used on hemorrhoids, rubbed on joints and skin disorders, consumed for sore throat, bronchial discharges, diarrhea and uterine hemorrhages, used to “sooth” the nerves and “tone” the system!

Surprisingly, many of the prominent pharmaceutical houses that are still in business today used cannabis. It was used as the primary pain reliever until the invention of aspirin that was patented in 1899. Samuel Hopkins Adkins helped expose patent medicine and medical quacks in Collier’s Weekly. His articles helped to educate the public, and in 1906 Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act.

By the time Louis Oswald bought the store from his father-in-law in 1915, great changes were taking place, and Wickel’s Drug Store became Oswald’s Pharmacy. His pride and joy was the new soda fountain, part of his modernization efforts. Yes, Coca Cola really did contain cocaine at that time!

A considerable amount of business came to the pharmacy when Prohibition arrived in 1920. Those patent medicines mentioned earlier were drawing cards with their high alcohol content. By the 1920s, prescription compounding was at its height; the wonder drugs of the late 410s and 50s were still in the future. A new drug called insulin was offered for the first time.. Cameras and cosmetics were now in stock. . Many of the Wickel items were still sold in the drug store, such as livestock remedies, paint and varnish, and as today, patent medicines.

The depression brought hard times to Naperville, but in 1930 Mr. Oswald hired a young pharmacist from Downers Grove, Harold Kester. A year later, Mr. Kester married the boss’ daughter, Helen Oswald. The hours were no different than in Mr. Wickel’s day; 7:30 AM to 11: PM, but on Saturday night the store remained open until midnight! That was the night that the farming community came to town to shop and socialize.

The business survived the great Depression, World War II, and in 2017 is still going strong in spite of the “big box” chain drug stores. It is still a compounding pharmacy, but carries a far greater spectrum of merchandise than Mr. Wickel ever imagined.

Written by Bill Anderson

Bill is the current owner of Oswald's Pharmacy. A 5th generation member of the Wickel-Oswald-Kester-Anderson family, Bill became general manager in 1979 and bought the business from his father in 1991. In 2004 Bill orchestrated Oswald's move from Downtown Naperville to Naperville Plaza. Bill graduated from Knox College in 1978 with a BA in Art, minoring in History. A graduate of Naperville Central High School in 1974, Bill is a lifelong Naperville resident. Over the years Bill has served as a current member and past president of the Naperville Rotary Club, current member and past chairman of the Downtown Naperville Alliance, and as former Naperville Riverwalk commissioner. Bill lives in Naperville with his wife, just a few blocks away from their grandchildren (the 7th Oswald's generation!).